Yet, even if one understands these differences, one may find it difficult at first to appreciate the drama of a past time. Modern drama from 980 A. D. onward passes from the simple Latin trope, already described, by accumulation of incident, developing characterization, and a feeling for expression for its own sake, to similar work in the vernacular, be it English, French, or German. Then slowly it gains enormously in characterization till some of the miracle and morality plays of the late fifteenth century equal or surpass any English drama up to Marlowe. But what lay behind all this drama of miracle play and morality was an undivided church. With the coming of the Reformation and its insistence on the value and finality of individual judgment, the didactic drama gave way to the drama of entertainment—the interludes and the beginnings of the five-act plays. Yet, fine as are some of the plays of the days of Elizabeth and James I, we find in them a brutality of mood, a childish sense of the comic, a love of story for mere story’s sake that make them oftentimes a little hard reading. Moreover, their technique—their frequent disregard of our ideas of unity, their methods of exposition by chorus, soliloquy, and aside—frequently appears to us antiquated. Except for the greatest of these plays—mainly by Shakespeare—the Elizabethan drama seems strange to us at a first reading. Only coming to know the conditions from which it sprang can give us its real values.

Even the great dramas of Æschylus, Sophocles, and to a less extent of Euripides, because he is more modern, are best read when we know something of the Greek life around these dramas and of the stage for which they were written. To these plays a great audience of perhaps 10,000 brought a common knowledge of the myths and stories represented, akin to our universal knowledge a generation ago of Biblical story. The audience brought also memories of successive and even recent treatments of the same myth by other dramatists, taking delight, not as we do in something because it seems new, but in the individual treatment of the old story by the new dramatist. The same attitude held for the Elizabethan public which delighted in successive versions of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Cæsar,” and “Hamlet.” In judging the drama of Greece or Elizabethan England this fact must be kept constantly in mind.

As one turns from Greek and Elizabethan drama, written for the delight and edification of the masses, to the work of Corneille and Racine, one faces plays written primarily for the cultivated, and worked out, not spontaneously by individual genius, but carefully according to critical theory derived not so much from study of classic drama as from commentators on a commentator on the Greek drama—Aristotle. From him, for instance, came the idea as to the essentiality of the unities of time, action, and place, themselves the result of physical conditions of the Greek stage. By contrast, then, this French tragedy of the seventeenth century is a drama of intellectuals.

Then as the spirit of humanitarianism spread and men shared more and more in Samuel Johnson’s desire “with extensive view” to “survey mankind from China to Peru,” the drama reflected all this. No longer did the world laugh at the selfish complacency and indulgence of the rake and fop, but it began to sympathize with his wife, fiancée, or friend who suffered from this selfishness and complacency. Illustrating that the difference between tragedy and comedy lies only in emphasis, Restoration comedy turned from thoughtless laughter to sympathetic tears. But such psychology as the sentimental comedy shows is conventional and superficial. It is in the nineteenth century that the drama, ever sensitive to public moods and sentiment, undergoes great changes. In France and Germany it breaks the shackles of the pseudo classicism which had for centuries held the drama to empty speech and a dead level of characterization. Goethe, Schiller, Hugo, Dumas père, and Alfred de Vigny reveal a new world of dramatic romance and history. In turn this romance leads to realism with an underlying scientific spirit which takes nothing at its old values.

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